Burt Bacharach told us  “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.”  Maybe if we translated the lyric into Latin and substituted the word church for world, an important message for this day and age might begin to circulate.  Excuse me if I sound cynical, naïve, or simplistic.  But I happen to think love is what we need now.  The vision of church emerging ought to be of a people pouring themselves out in loving service of Christ through loving service of the poor in whom Christ lives.  Instead, the image seems to be of an institution increasingly out of touch with the people and the times and bent on restoring hierarchical splendor and a separatist clericalism that sees the ordained priests in their ontological difference as being above and apart from the laity.  The Priesthood of the Baptized does not seem to matter nearly as much.

Some people laugh when they hear that the second largest denomination in the United States is Former Catholics, sometimes called recovering Catholics.  For the time being the largest denomination remains Catholics.  But if the rate of departure cited by the Pew reports continues, the Formers may overtake the Practicing Catholics.  What is interesting is that the primary reason Catholics stop practicing, especially those who move to another denomination, is that they do not find their faith supported by church practices.  Take that to mean that they do not experience the preaching as a breaking open of the Word that applies the Word to their lived experience, calling them to live the mystery of Christ in the market place.  The preaching does not bring them to Eucharist.  Pomposity doesn’t impress.  That’s odd too, given the materialism of these times and the constant lauding of the quest for wealth and power.  There is a reason why so many identify with and claim to be disciples of Ayn Rand.  Objectivism is all about the primacy of self with no sense of responsibility for the needs of the poor.

The whole church could benefit from pondering St. Francis of Assisi.  See him as he stood before the bishop and stripped himself of everything he had, all signs of his father’s wealth, and, standing in his nakedness, he announced he had wedded Lady Poverty.  Granted, his actions were extreme and not everyone is called to the absoluteness of his stand.  But detachment might be something we should think about.  Being detached frees us considerably.

If Francis is too remote or too idealized, then we might contemplate Archbishop Oscar Romero who, in an action similar to Francis’s, left his privileged comforts and the elite with whom he was associated, and walked out into the streets of El Salvador to stand with the disenfranchised poor.  You know how his life ended.  He was shot to death as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel.  His voice had become too loud and the poor were beginning to feel valued and empowered.  Strange how to this day his voice continues to be heard throughout El Salvador calling for reform.  Sisters, brothers, and lay people have been martyred in the course of their witness in South America and Africa, too.  There are many in our country who witness in solidarity with the poor, sisters primary among them.  They may not have had to shed their blood for the cause, but they pour themselves out in loving service, educating the young and ministering to the sick.  Their stories need to be told and their experiences ought to have considerable impact on the preaching.

A new commandment I give you.  Love one another…  By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Jesus never said his call would be easy to follow or that he would be easy to imitate – but he is the standard for our call to love.  Love one another as I have loved you.  How many would-be disciples, turned and walked away then and do so now when the demands of discipleship became clear to them?  The rich young man who had kept all the commandments from his youth walked away sad when Jesus urged him to sell what he had and give to the poor before following him.  Wealth had a powerful allure even then.  And Peter who thought Jesus would soon emerge as a powerful Messiah to drive out foreign rule and in setting up his kingdom just might find a prominent position for Peter, suffered reprimand from Jesus when Peter expressed horror at Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death.  Jesus commanded Peter to stand behind him and learn what it meant to imitate him in service of the poor.

I read an interesting article recently that described the numbers of young people eager and willing to go on mission work.  They’re not afraid of squalor in Africa, Asia, India, or South America.  They present as being comfortable among the poorest and the most disabled.  They speak of loving Christ and of being transformed by their service.  And many of them don’t go to church.  There is an obvious disconnect.  But whose fault is that?  I don’t think it is theirs.

The pedophilia scandals have rocked the church and challenged the faith of many.  In Ireland, the abuse of boys and girls by priests and nuns and the seeming complicity by silence of some bishops have resulted in empty churches in that very Catholic land.  The acts of atonement by the Archbishop of Dublin, including his washing the feet of wounded parishioners are seen as the first steps of restoration and healing.

Some questions regarding sexual morality need to be re-examined.  If I am not mistaken, over 90% of Catholics ignore the church’s teaching on artificial contraception.  Ignoring pronouncements on that issue has closed ears to other issues as well.  It is a matter of relating to people and to their needs and concerns.  The people’s understanding of sex seems to have grown beyond what is being taught.  A wider understanding that goes beyond openness to conception is part and parcel of the common thinking.  That needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  So, too, the question of homosexuality and the intrinsic need that homosexual people have for intimate relationship.  It was Genesis that proclaimed that it is not good for the human to be alone.  The church must listen to the lived experience of these people and acknowledge that their orientation is not a matter of choice, and hear also their desire to enter into loving and committed relationships.

The Second Vatican Council declared that Eucharistic Liturgy is the source and summit of our lived faith.  The Council also declared that the baptized are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  In declaring the church to be the People of God and the Body of Christ, the imminence of Christ was proclaimed : Christ present in the Assembly; Christ present in the Word; Christ present in the presider.  In that, there is no denial of Christ’s transcendence.  Rather, there is an acknowledgment, indeed proclamation of both realities.

Many of those no longer going to Sunday mass or those leaving the Catholic Church for other denominations, are doing so because their faith is not being supported by the Liturgical experience.  They remember the days when the invitation to enter into Liturgy was a call for the Assembly to unite in their gathering around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist to experience the Spirit’s transforming power.  Now they experience a distancing.  The preaching seems to be a challenge to be good so that they will merit heaven, rather than a breaking open of the Word to empower them to bring that Good News to the world to transform it and bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.  They are no longer co-celebrants of the Liturgy.  The return of the tabernacle from reservation chapels to the area of the altar refocus the purpose of the gathering from celebrating the dying and rising of Jesus in the Eucharist to the adoration of Christ in the reserved sacrament.  It is not uncommon for most of the Assembly to receive Holy Communion via the reserved Sacrament rather than from the Eucharistic Bread from the mass they are attending.  They are not allowed full participation in the Eucharist.

A few weeks ago, I came out from mass with a friend.  I had said nothing, but was conscious of the fact that my teeth had been grinding through the homily and through the Eucharistic prayer.  And my stomach churned.  My friend whispered as we exited the church, “I think I missed mass again.”  That was my sense as well.

I find myself reflecting on the lived experience of the early church when the faithful gathered around tables in homes and prayed with the Scriptures and broke Bread together.  Humble abodes were appropriate gathering places for people whose poverty imitated Christ’s.  These were the days before the church became regal in Constantine’s reign.  A return to pre-Constantinian simplicity and poverty might not be a bad idea.  We’ll have to wait and watch and then follow where the Spirit leads.  In the meantime there is hope as the world recognizes that what it needs is love.



2 comments so far

  1. Cheryl Dermody on

    Father Sarkies, when I was a Lutheran a wise woman told me that when the sermon wasn’t working she would contemplate the stained glass windows. Now that I am a Catholic it still works. The priest is talking somewhere in left field and I contemplate the windows until he’s finished. There are still some priests in our midst that challenge us to love; there are others who don’t. Remember when Pope Benedict was elected. You said the Holy Spirit would make it all work out. I still believe in the power of the Spirit.

  2. Carol D'Ambrosio on

    It took me a while to figure out what had changed at my parish and why I felt so unfulfilled after mass but I finally realized that it was the direction of the entire Catholic Church that brought about this empty feeling. I have been a Catholic my entire life so moving to a different religion seems strange and not going to church at all is even a worse option. I guess I can just try and wait it out. In the meantime reading your blog Father Sarkies helps me a great deal. Thanks!

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